1. What draws you to the gothic?
Honestly, the gothic to me is like second nature. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t live with a sense of the uncanny, a sense of spiritual uncertainty, even in childhood. I can’t explain this, it’s a gut thing. If I attempt to analyse it I might say it stems from the fact that three generations of my mother’s family were grave-diggers and sextons (and still are) of our local church, built in thirteenth-century gothic style. As a child, I often visited it with my mother, and it felt natural to do so. I don’t know if that’s the reason though, because I’ve always felt I was born out of time. I think I belonged to the past and have an affinity with all things old.
Of course, I’m aware of modern gothic and understand that gothic literature does not have to be set in the past, but I often set my writing during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It simply feels right. I feel an affinity with that particular time period.
It’s not only gothic literature I love but the architecture, too. Stained glass windows, vaulted ceilings, pointed arches, and so on. A few years back my husband and I spent some time exploring rural France and were spoiled for choice when it came to gothic and medieval architecture.
My personal preference is for quiet horror. I prefer to be immersed in mood and atmosphere rather than gore, and gothic literature does just that. Early reads for me were the classics: Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Edgar Allan Poe. At university, I studied Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, William Golding’s The Spire, and William Blake’s poetry. A few of my favourite modern gothic writers include Laura Purcell, Sarah Perry, and Diane Setterfield. I’m a sucker for a ghost story, but I particularly like the uncertainty that comes with it. Was it really a ghost, or was it all in the character’s mind? For this reason, I’m happy to live with an open ending, one which allows me to draw my own conclusions.
Setting plays a vital role in gothic literature, and living in Wales is an asset when it comes to that. Darkly picturesque scenery, ancient buildings, prehistoric landscapes and landmarks, all of which provide the ideal stimulus for writing.
Most of all, I guess it’s the psychological torment the characters of gothic fiction endure that draws me to it, as well as the sense of isolation and mystery. Hopefully, I’ve managed to capture this mood in A Moonlit Path of Madness, the main character’s loss of grip on reality and her subsequent and inevitable downfall, pitted against the backdrop of an old Welsh fishing village.
2. Are there any particular themes you like to explore in your fiction?
In truth, the themes I end up exploring are always unintentional. They come from an internal place, a subconscious place. I guess this is true of most writers, which is why we sometimes stumble when asked what feel like awkward questions during interviews or podcasts. Often the reader will identify things within the work that we writers didn’t even consider, or at least not consciously.
Themes that come naturally for me are death and loss, sanity and insanity, and that flimsy border between real madness and madness as perceived by the outside world, because at the end of the day, we’re all somewhere along a wide spectrum, aren’t we?
Another theme I like to explore is facing one’s fears. The risks we take and the bridges we cross in an attempt to widen our perspective or experience. It’s fascinating, and in my stories, I never promise it will all end happily either, because sometimes it won’t, just like in real life.
I love toying with the supernatural, be it in the form of ghosts, malign deities, or even by gifting inanimate objects with supernatural powers. Several of my stories incorporate these elements, for example in my novella Immortelle, where the items placed inside each grave ornament are mystically provided the power to link the dead with the living.
In A Moonlit Path of Madness, it is the grandfather clock and handwritten notes that influence the real world so that the characters are never certain how much of what they experience is real and how much is imagined.
Religion is another theme I deploy quite often, especially when established religion turns sour.
While all of this sounds miserable and morbid, I occasionally enjoy writing darkly humorous stories, especially in the short form. It is my belief that you can’t be truly Welsh unless you have a cutting sense of humour, and every now and then I like to give it free rein.
3. What’s the scariest thing you’ve seen in Wales?
There’s a huge difference between things I find scary and things I find atmospheric or unsettling, which is why I’m often found picnicking in graveyards. This might sound odd, but in Wales, we have an abundance of gothic, Victorian graveyards which are ripe for stimulating horror stories. They are not scary though, not in the least. They are peaceful places where you can sit on the grass and listen to the birds in the trees and be at one with the past.
In rural West Wales, where I live now, they are often found in secret locations and have lain undisturbed for many years. Some overlook the sea; others nestle in woodland, and I find myself thinking there are far worse places one could spend an eternity. I’d like to give a shout-out to a very special charity here called Friends of Friendless Churches who do incredible work in saving redundant but beautiful churches from demolition, decay, and unsympathetic renovation.
That said, I’ll return to the question, as I’ve gone a bit astray. Wales is an ancient land, with an abundance of castles, caves, and cromlechs on our doorstep. I suppose some people might consider such places scary, but they aren’t at all. They’re atmospheric and inspiring as opposed to scary. Places such as Llancaiach Fawr Manor, a Tudor mansion, were restored and furnished as they would have been in 1645. Then there’s the Skirrid Inn, said to date from as far back as the eleventh century and reputed to be Wales’ oldest and most haunted inn. In truth, the list of such places is endless, but it is the lesser-known places I find most haunted. The places where you’re pretty much assured you’ll be the only person there.
I’m painting a pretty picture of Wales here, and yes, it is beautiful, but it has its share of drudgery. There are harsh places, industrial wastelands, and towns rife with poverty and under-privilege, and if I’m honest it is these I find most scary because these are the places where you’re more likely to witness people at their worst. Not all of course, there are many good souls to be found, but many of these places have been in decline for several generations now and things are getting worse. Trust me, I lived most of my life in such communities and witnessed the changes first-hand.
One of the funniest, and at the same time scariest, things I saw in Wales was while on a walk a few years back. This was in the South Wales Valleys, the post-industrial part of Wales where I taught for most of my adult life. The local authority had, in fairness, spent a lot of money trying to regenerate the landscape after the coal mines closed. They transformed the old railways into walking and cycling paths, planted trees, and landscaped much of the area. What they couldn’t transform though, was the growth of petty crime that stemmed from the loss of industry and jobs.
On this particular day, we’d walked a few miles along the river and climbed a mountain known as The Giant’s Bite ( an old quarry), a rugged place that overlooks the former mining villages. Deep in the woods, we spotted a car, though how on earth it got there we didn’t know. It must have been pushed over the gorge because no road led to it. The car had obviously been stolen and the perpetrators had set fire to it, leaving a blackened shell. There was something incredibly creepy about it, but we had to take a closer look. We crept closer, expecting to see nothing but empty seats, but instead, we saw that the driver’s seat was occupied. Whoever had stolen the vehicle must have had a sense of humour, because a life-sized cuddly toy, known in the UK as The Honey Monster (from a Kellogg’s breakfast cereal called Sugar Puffs), sat propped behind the steering wheel, its bright yellow fur charred and its huge eyes dripping melted plastic down its face. Surreal, but haunting somehow. So yes, that was one of the scariest things, because we felt as if we were being watched. The memory still makes me shudder.
Sometimes though, being scared is something we tap into rather than it being tangible. It’s a sensation. A sixth sense that tells you something’s amiss.
Close to where I live now, there’s another disused railway line, and when I say railway line I mean the type used as a little tourist steam railway some years back. Now it’s overgrown and long abandoned, but because it nestles in a country gorge it’s atmospheric. It’s possible to walk the line for a few miles before reaching the woodland. Along the way, there’s the tiny platform where the train once stopped, old signage, and an abandoned carriage.
One evening, while walking this route, everything suddenly fell silent. Even the birds stopped singing. It was for all the world as if we had stepped into another time zone, really eerie. Then came a snap of a branch and a rustle, as if someone lurked hidden among the foliage. It made the hairs on my arms stand on end and my heart race. What made it worse was the fact that we couldn’t get away fast enough, because you needed to tread carefully on the overgrown sleepers. This sense of a time slip inspired the short story “Jagged Edges” from my collection Mists and Megaliths. As I’m sure many other writers do, I capture such experiences and use them as story inspiration.
GOTHIC FICTION | SUPERNATURAL | NOVEL
“McCarthy delivers a devastating novel about death and mourning and the revelatory power of grief. I was swept away. You will be, too.”
—C.S. Humble, author
Grief haunts her every step
Inheriting a family heirloom in the form of an antique clock with a broken moon dial as well as a seaside house in Wales, Grace Morgan mourns the loss of her mother and dreads the manifestation of a family curse that threatens to lay claim to her and everything she holds dear.
Set around the turn of the 20th century, A Moonlit Path of Madness traces Grace’s journey from the United States to the distant parish of Newport on the West Wales coast. Partly epistolary and laced with Welsh folklore, this tragic gothic tale delves into the prevalent mental health challenges of the era in the face of unrelenting fear and all-consuming trauma, as Grace reckons with the insidious specter of her lingering grief.
FORTHCOMING | July 11, 2023
ABOUT Catherine McCarthy
Catherine McCarthy weaves dark tales on an ancient loom from her 19th-century Welsh farmhouse. Her love of supernatural fiction is an ever-present ghost, and she enjoys haunting others through her words.
She is the author of the collection Mists and Megaliths and the novella Immortelle, both of which are set in Wales.
Her short fiction has been published in various anthologies and magazines, including those by Black Spot Books, Alienhead Press, and Dark Matter Ink.
In July 2023 her Gothic novel, A Moonlit Path of Madness, will be published by Nosetouch Press, and in August her novella, Mosaic, publishes with Dark Hart Books.
Forthcoming works include a YA novel, The Wolf and the Favour, from Brigids Gate Press (October 2023) and a weird psychological novella, The House at the End of Lacelean Street, with Dark Matter Ink (April 2024).
Time away from the loom is spent hiking the Welsh coast path or huddled in an ancient graveyard reading Poe.
- Paperback: 260 pages
- Language: English
- ISBN-13: 978-1-944286-30-9
Also available as an ebook.